This is a question I ask myself quite frequently.
I wouldn’t call myself a rebel. I just subscribe to a different outlook of what a public educator should be.
I wear many hats. “English teacher” is simply a fanciful beret I place on my head to act theatrically for eight hours of the day. My true job is polishing the future of tomorrow. I tell my students on day one that my overall goal is producing young adults who are equipped with the critical thinking skills required of an American citizen.
This also means that I often push them to their limits in order for them to realize their true potential. It’s not always pretty – teenagers today are used to having any bit of information they could possibly need at the ends of their rapidly-deteriorating fingertips. The crucial foundations of passion and work ethic are fading with every passing year. For decades, our students have been relegated to a number system that ranks them based on how well they play the GPA game. Outside of that, they have no way of defining themselves.
We redefine in my room. Valedictorian or bottom-dweller, all fall victim to my merciless style of teaching.
A few years ago, when I was teaching AP Language and Composition in a small, mostly poor, rural district in Southeast Texas, I had a young man in class who repeatedly turned in shitty timed writings. He took no value in constructive criticism and never tried to improve as a writer. One day, I decided I’d had enough. How dare these brats waste my time?
I took the essay he’d just written in class, gave it a cursory glance, looked at him, and said: “my dog could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and shit out a better essay than this.” Then, while looking into his eyes, I crumpled the essay up and tossed it in the trash.
Drastic? Sure. The kid looked like I’d just beaten his favorite stray puppy. In fact, he got up and stormed out. The rest of the class stared at me as if I held the power to cut them down at the knees as well. Mustering my coldest face, I warned them: “I will no longer accept mediocre work. You are not mediocre students. Do better.”
I caught word that the kid had marched to the counselor and asked to drop my class, so I tracked him down. I let him rant at me. Then I ranted at him. I informed him that he wouldn’t fail to reach his full potential with me because I wouldn’t tolerate mediocrity from him any longer. He cussed. I cussed at him. (Again, how have I not been fired?) Long story short, I encouraged him to stay.
Guess whose next timed writing was worlds better than the dog-shit essay?
Tough love is still a thing. Don’t let today’s kids merely pass through the system. Hold them accountable, challenge their work ethic, and do whatever it takes to make them see themselves in a different light.
After all, if you’re not constantly on the verge of being fired, you aren’t doing it right.